In his contribution to Social Change and Modernity , Jeffrey C. Alexander surveys “differentiation theory” from Durkheim to Weber to Parsons to recent studies. In the end, he admits that “Even in relatively developed countries, the autonomy of the societal community—its differentiation from religious, primordial, political, and economic spheres—is tentative. In liberal capitalist nations, for example, the media of mass communication are often still partly fused with political, economic, and ethnic groupings . . . . Even when a certain autonomy is achieved, moreover, social stability may not be the result. Similarly, even in societal communities that are relatively differentiated, particularistically defined core groups continue to occupy privileged positions . . . . Because exclusion from this core on religious, ethnic, and social class grounds remains, struggles for inclusion are not bounded episodes but are permanent and inescapable features of modern life.”

In the face of the evidence that “differentiation” might not characterize “modernity” as much as we think, Alexander instead suggests that “in contemporary ‘modern’ societies differentiation still has a very long way to go . . . . Thus, although there is no doubt that kinship and blood have vastly receded in civilization terms, the significance of gender in almost every area of modern society demonstrates that much fusion remains. Feminist movements can be seen, in these terms, as efforts to differentiate kinship and biology from evaluations of competence and hence from the distribution of economic, political, and cultural goods.”

Which makes differentiation theory look like an article of faith, rather than a set of empirical claims. Differentiation is the wave of the future, and if hasn’t yet won out, still we hope against hope.

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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